Into a New Neighborhood
People move. Historians have suggested that almost all of human history can be summarized in those two words. Certainly for urban dwellers and for urban religious institutions, those words are experientially true.
Immanuel was no exception. Born in the area just north of the Chicago River, Immanuel had moved to the Near North section of the city in 1869. That area was then a center of Scandinavian homes, businesses and culture. By the end of the century, the Norwegians and Swedes had departed the neighborhood in large numbers, and the Near North was becoming increasingly Italian and Roman Catholic.
As early as 1907, the leadership of Immanuel and the Augustana Synod had begun planning for a new congregation in the far northern part of the city. The initial site for the new church was in the Edgewater community, near the current Senn High School. Bethel Chapel, as it was named, had a rather rocky beginning, with several short-term pastors. The congregation never exceeded 150, but many members of Immanuel began attending worship there, due to its proximity to their homes.
In 1912, merger talks between Immanuel and Bethel began, but it wasn’t until 1918 that the two congregations were formally joined and plans were initiated for a large new edifice about four blocks northwest of Bethel. Construction began in 1921 at 1500 Elmdale Avenue and was completed the following year. The planning had begun under the leadership of Pastor Peter Peterson, but in 1919 he was elected bishop and resigned from Immanuel. Pastor C.O. Bengsten was called as his successor and was the overseer of the building project.
The new structure included a parish hall and parsonage, but no permanent worship space. The first floor of the parish hall (the current Founders Hall) served as sanctuary for more than 30 years. A second-floor gymnasium provided space for Sunday School and other activities. The tower included an apartment and, at one time, the transmission center for a radio station. Because of the presence of an underground spring, no basement was constructed.
Challenges of Urban Ministry
The major reason cited for Immanuel’s move from the Near North to Edgewater was proximity to a large number of its members’ homes. A secondary reason, however, was certainly a sense that the present neighborhood was deteriorating and becoming unsafe. Even the move to more affluent Edgewater, it would develop, was no guarantee that one could escape the challenges of urban ministry in the twentieth century.
Edgewater, along with its neighbors Rogers Park and Uptown, was a wealthy, socially vibrant, and artistically rich section of Chicago in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Decline set in after World War II, and was precipitous in some neighborhoods. Edgewater fared better than the adjacent areas, but even there poverty, hunger, and inadequate housing became major community issues. The flight of more affluent families and young people to the suburbs compounded these problems. Energetic efforts by members of the community and neighborhood organizations were able to reverse the decline, and Edgewater emerged as a highly desirable portion of the city, while maintaining its strong diversity.
Immanuel’s response to community needs embraced a wide variety of activities, from athletic events to scouting programs, from musical organizations to social groups. The Edgewater Tutoring Program, founded by Sally Grenz, answered the need of neighborhood children for intensive one-on-one assistance. Parish nurse Michelle Knapp likewise created the Together Program to provide support for young children and their caregivers. Both ETP and Together have grown and continue to prosper.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, under the leadership of Pastor Carl McKenzie and youth director Ken Duckmann, Immanuel became a center of innovative youth ministry for the north side of Chicago. With a volunteer staff of 14 people and the support of the Search Institute and Lutheran Brotherhood, the Immanuel Youth Organization conducted workshops, retreats, a stress-management class, Bible studies, and other weekly activities. One outgrowth of this program was the formation of a cooperative Lutheran youth ministry, which at one time included 15 churches. Many of these programs continued under Duckmann’s successors.
A key feature of life in Edgewater has been the cooperation of religious bodies in ministry to the community. The Edgewater Community Religious Association (ECRA) was instrumental in the formation of the neighborhood food pantry, Care for Real. Immanuel’s close ties to St. Gertrude Catholic Parish and Temple Emanuel have also been a source of spiritual enrichment for the three congregations.
Vision for the Future
This brief history of Immanuel was written as the congregation was celebrating its 160th anniversary. From the perspective of 2013, it appears that Immanuel has received many blessings. Each blessing, however, has brought its own challenge to the congregation.
Immanuel’s neighborhood has an incredible amount of diversity. Around 2001, one study showed that nearly 140 languages and major dialects were spoken in the homes within a 2-mile radius of Senn High School. Demographers agree that the northeast section of Chicago (Edgewater, Rogers Park, West Ridge, Uptown, and Ravenswood) is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse parts of the planet. While this allows for healthy interaction and dialogue, such diversity can also be intimidating.
Among the glories of Immanuel are its liturgical heritage and musical traditions, which have attracted many members to the congregation. It is, however, a liturgical style which is unfamiliar to many people, especially to those with little personal history in the Church.
Members of Immanuel have provided large financial legacies to support and improve the church and its ministries. The downside to endowments and legacies is that they tend to diminish the average member’s involvement with and commitment to mission.
Even the impressive history of the congregation can become a negative factor, if it becomes a focus for nostalgia rather than a guide for future mission. There is a tendency to glorify the deeds of the past and to minimize significant work that is being done today.
As part of its commemoration of 160 years of ministry, Immanuel will be reviewing its vision and mission. As the congregation has often seemed to lack a common vision and a clarity of mission, this is a crucial step in planning for the future. It seems likely that whatever vision emerges from that process, it will include emphases on small groups, social media, community involvement, and spiritual formation.
Public Transportation: We are conveniently located about two blocks from the #22 Clark bus and a ten-minute walk from the Thorndale red line station.
Parking: On Sundays, parking is available at Senn High School (5900 N Glenwood Ave) half a block south of the church. An accessible drop-off location is located directly in front of the church entrance on Elmdale Ave.